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Editorial: The rate of black lung needs to go back down

West Virginia’s black lung clinics are set to lose half a million dollars in federal funding this year, due to changes in the way the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration funds clinics across the country.

Those clinics serve 8,400 patients in West Virginia, mostly former or retired miners with pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease.

Meanwhile, the rate of black lung disease in West Virginia is increasing. Why?

It appeared for years that the beginning of the end of black lung disease began in 1969, when miners marched on the Capitol in Charleston and demanded change -- a protest that was heard all the way in Washington, D.C. where Congress enacted laws to set tough new standards on dust levels in coal mines.

Black lung rates dropped rapidly with the new law as coal companies implemented safety measures in their mines.

Unfortunately, black lung rates began to rise in West Virginia again in the 2000s.

The West Virginia Rural Health Research Center at West Virginia University reported in 2013 that black lung was prevalent in 6.5 percent of miners in the 1970s, 2.5 percent in the 1980s, 2.1 percent in the 1990s and started an upward trend in the 2000s with an incidence of 3.2 percent.

Coal has been embattled in recent years, as the worldwide market changes and the industry faces increasing -- perhaps superfluous -- new air emission regulations that will force the closure of dozens of older coal burning power plants in the northeastern United States.

So the coal industry doesn’t need further burdens, particularly self-inflicted ones, such as an increase in pneumoconiosis cases to further increase its costs and generate more bad vibes.

With all the external forces fighting the industry, the coal industry needs to do a better job of policing itself and stop the increase in black lung cases, putting the incidence rate back on the downward track that started 45 years ago.

In the meantime, perhaps the industry should consider coughing up the half a million in funding that West Virginia’s black lung clinics are losing so as to assure effective treatment for former miners suffering from the condition.


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